Following the surprise announcement that Tea Party stalwart Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is retiring from his post to run the Heritage Foundation, Republicans are faced with an awkward reality -- that is, that whatever the merits of DeMint's choice, it leaves the GOP in the position of defending two Senate seats in the same state, in the same year (2014).
In a year which the GOP has seen - with some justification - as their best chance at taking back the Senate, one more vulnerability is not necessarily a welcome development. This is especially so when you consider that DeMint himself had proven practically bulletproof in previous elections against, in some cases, laughably poor candidates.
And then there is the fact that South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham - never a particularly popular officeholder with the party's conservative base - is also up for reelection the same year, and could face a bruising primary. Given these two facts, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley faces a very difficult choice in trying to find someone who could retain DeMint's ironclad electability, while also being someone who could avoid a divisive and bruising primary in 2014. Such candidates are rare in the best of circumstances, but several names could easily rise to the top of the pack. Below are the top five picks Haley could make to replace DeMint.
1. Rep. Tim Scott
Why? In a year where Republicans are increasingly fretting about their capacity to reach minorities, Tim Scott is a clear aberration. That is, he is the only African American congressman in the GOP. The fact that he survived a bruising primary battle in his first run for Congress against Paul Thurmond, son of infamous Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, makes him a battle-tested prospect. The South Carolina establishment is already lining up behind him, and most observers view him as the clear favorite.
Why not? He's been in Congress for a comparatively short time, and the support of the establishment in a state as conservative as South Carolina could prove to be the kiss of death, if Haley wants to avoid a primary.
2. Governor Nikki Haley
Why? Haley would also be up for reelection in 2014, is lagging in the polls, and would leave a more than capable hand behind her in the Governor's mansion in the form of Lieutenant Gov. Glenn McConnell if she decided to become Senator. It would be a useful rise in national profile for the youngest Governor in America, and as another strong minority candidate, she'd be able to offer a high profile face for Republicans within a demographic that they desperately need.
Why not? Haley has given few signs that she wants a job in Washington, and may calculate that a vanity move like this could hurt her, or McConnell himself.
3. Rep. Mick Mulvaney
Why? While Scott and Haley are establishment picks, Mulvaney is being talked up by the grassroots -- especially fiscal conservatives. Combine this with the fact that he is the first Republican to hold his seat since 1883 and one of the GOP's "young gun" success stories from 2010, and Haley may calculate that he's the kind of successor who would keep DeMint's ardent conservative fans the most happy. Lindsey Graham could also put pressure on Haley to appoint someone who otherwise would prove to be a headache in a primary challenge against him, and Mulvaney fits that bill to a tee.
Why not? He lacks the diversity advantage of Scott and Haley, without any clear experience advantage over Scott. It's also unclear how much sway the grassroots will have over the Governor.
4. Former South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster
Why? McMaster would be an unusual choice, given his comparative low profile. However, speculation has suggested that Haley might pick him as nothing but a placeholder, with no intention of having him run to hold office for the full remainder of DeMint's term. This would save the South Carolina GOP the trouble of having to defend two sitting Senators against primary challenges, and would also throw the 2014 race for DeMint's seat wide open, lessening the chance of a credible challenge to Graham.
Why not? A bruising primary for DeMint's open seat in 2014 could leave the seat a vulnerable pickup for Democrats, which Haley would presumably want to avoid.
5. Rep. Trey Gowdy
Why? Gowdy has one feature that would mark him as a clear successor to DeMint: His acid-tongued rebukes of the administration. Like Mulvaney, he is young, though unlike Mulvaney, he's already achieved some fame on conservative blogs for his outspoken advocacy. This makes him a riskier pick, but also one that would almost certainly keep South Carolina's conservatives happy. He's a wild card, and if Haley decides she needs her base, he shouldn't be ignored.
Why not? A wild card is still a long shot, and Gowdy lacks both Mulvaney's evidence of statewide electoral appeal and Haley/Scott's diversity appeal. He's a less credible threat to Lindsey Graham than someone like Mulvaney as well. This is also still a pick by a state party, and fiery rhetoric is little use.